Escaping email overload
I recently welcomed a group of new team members who were not used to the email centric culture. This can be overwhelming: We have dozens of email lists and automated systems sending status updates and alerts that everyone receives email from. Many of us who have lived this way for a long time have coping mechanisms. These are mine.
Filters to the rescue
Just about every email system supports email rules or filters. We use Outlook (naturally), but other systems have equivalent functionality. These are the rules I find most helpful, in the order in which Outlook processes them for every email:
- Mark emails
from:me as read: This may seem odd. But I often get email from “myself”: Some mailing lists send me a copy of my own email, I sometimes mail myself a note, … . In those cases, I can (still) confidently assert that I have read the email.
- Put emails
to:me into the Inbox and stop processing: Messages that directly address me require my attention, one way or the other. They should stay in the Inbox and not be affected by any of the following rules.
- Put emails
cc:to me into the CC folder and stop processing: Messages that CC me explicitly are sent with the assumption that I will (eventually) be aware of their contents. The CC folder is my way of making sure of that. I read emails in the folder less often than in the Inbox, but I still at least skim them.
- This is where all the custom email filters go: filter mailing lists into folders, delete emails from lists I somehow am unable to leave, … . This is an ever growing (and rarely shrinking) list of horrors.
- Put the remaining emails into a “Not to me” folder: these are the emails that have me neither in the
cc:field, nor do I have a specific filter for them. In other words: this folder is my reminder to create more filters.
With these filters in place, I can confidently read and act upon the email in my Inbox, skim the ones in my CC folder and know which new filters I need based on the “Not to me” folder.
Archive is your friend
I treat the Inbox, CC and “Not to me” folders as todo lists: Email that is still there (read or not) requires an action from me: Respond, do some work, unsubscribe, you name it. Once that action is done, I move the email to the Archive folder. This is conveniently done via the single-key shortcut “e” in Outlook for the web. I try to, and usually do, get to an empty Inbox once a week.
This simple system of filters and ruthless archiving has so far allowed me to avoid email bankcuptcy. Maybe it helps you, too.